Some Batangas residents return home as Taal Volcano eases

BATANGAS, Philippines – Some evacuees were finally able to return to their homes on Sunday, January 26, as state volcanologists lowered Taal Volcano's status to Alert Level 3.

Though the threat of a hazardous eruption is not yet being ruled out, the downgrading was a chance for families to check on what they left behind. Returning was easier for those with vehicles.

"Dineclare naman 'yan sa TV pero pansamantala lang dahil baka 'di raw...sigurado ng [Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology] kung puputok ba o hindi. Eh di kami nagdesisyon na ring pamilya na umuwi muna kami. Lilinisin ko muna ito," said Ramuel de Claro, a resident of Lemery.

(It was announced on TV, that's the situation for now since Phivolcs can't say for certain if the volcano will erupt or not. So my family decided to come home. I'll clean here first.)

De Claro and his family returned to a house with volcanic ash everywhere. They started to clean the walls and the street outside their house. But the amount of ash on their roof was just too much for them to clean in one day.

The Batangas provincial government said residents may choose to come home if their area is no longer on lockdown, but evacuation centers are still open for those whose houses were damaged.

Rappler went around the previously locked down areas within the 14-kilometer danger zone and saw that only a few residents had gone home. The areas still looked like a ghost town, particularly Talisay.

De Claro, who stayed at his daughter's house in Makati City, said his family who came with him to Lemery left him by evening. He'll be alone in their Lemery home until state volcanologists declare that Taal Volcano will no longer erupt.

What would he do if Alert Level 4 is raised again?

"Tatakbo. Ay, patigasan na lang ng dibdib. Wala na tayong magagawa," said De Claro. (I'll run. I just need to be brave. There's nothing we can do about the eruption.)

Meanwhile, Mataasnakahoy residents got excited the moment they heard about the lowering of the alert level.

"Nakakainip na nakakapagod maghintay na makauwi. Parang kayo'y pagod na pagod kahit nakaupo lang.... Kaya nung sinabing makakauwi na, ang sarap ng feeling!" said a resident who refused to be named.

(It's boring and it's tiring to wait to be able to come home. It's like being so tired even if you're not doing anything.... That's why when they said we could return home, it felt so good!)

Melisia Manalo, 63, is among the Mataasnakahoy residents who went home on Sunday. Her family used to live on the volcano island in the 1970s – the last time Taal erupted before its 2020 unrest.

Should the alert level be raised again, Manalo said they will immediately gather their things to evacuate anew.

"Hindi matigas ang aming ulo dahil kaligtasan po ang habol namin," she said. (We won't be hardheaded because we want to be safe.)

Government service

The municipality of Taal, meanwhile, provided government vehicles to fetch residents.

Rommel Capuno, 32, said they started cleaning the classroom they were staying in at Banaba East Elementary School in Batangas City the moment they heard the news.

"Nung nalaman naming pwede nang bumalik kami po'y agad nag-ayos ng mga gamit. At saka tuwang-tuwa po ang aming mga kababayan na taga-rito at nababa na nga 'yung [alert level], at nag-open na 'yung lockdown," Capuno said.

(When we learned that we could come home, we immediately fixed our things. People from our town were also very happy that the alert level has been lowered and there's no more lockdown.)

Capuno said there were trucks from police in Canlubang City, Laguna, that brought the residents in batches to the Taal municipal hall. From there, vehicles from the municipal government brought them to their houses.

Taal Mayor Fulgencio Mercado said the municipality borrowed vehicles from other local government units to augment theirs.

According to Mercado, evacuation for their town came as a "shock," as Taal had always been hosting evacuees. They weren't used to fleeing, and because of that, it took them 3 days to evacuate residents who were unwilling to leave the town.

If the volcanic unrest escalates again, Mercado said evacuation may be faster the next time around.

"Siguro naman mas mabilis na ngayon, kasi before talaga nabulaga kami," the Taal mayor said. (I think it would be faster next time. Before, we were really shocked.)

Still on lockdown

At least 11 towns had been placed on total lockdown when Alert Level 4 was raised over Taal.

Now, with a smaller danger zone of 7 kilometers from the main crater, only Taal Volcano Island, Agoncillo, and Laurel remain on lockdown. But Laurel residents have been given window hours of 11 am to 5 pm. (READ: LIST: Batangas towns, cities where lockdowns are lifted as Taal down to Alert Level 3)

According to Laurel police manning a checkpoint, only the barangays of Gulod and Buso-Buso are highly vulnerable. Gulod, they said, is prone to landslides, while Buso-Buso is nearest to the volcano.

On Sunday, Gulod resident Bonifacio Cortez traveled to their home from Alfonso, Cavite, where their evacuation center is located. He said he can't let their animals die.

"Kaya po kami nauwi dahil po ang aming alagang hayop, sayang naman po. Kung mamatay man ay wala naman pong mananagot do'n, eh di kung kami din lang po," Cortez said.

(We came home because we need to take care of our animals. If they die, no one else would be responsible for that but us.)

Cortez couldn't be bothered even if their house stands within the 7-kilometer danger zone.

"Kami po ay okay lang po kahit nandito lang po kami dahil wala naman pong pagyanig o mahina naman po ang lindol," he said.

(We're fine even if we're staying here within the danger zone because we don't feel any earthquakes, or if we do, they're just weak.)

Thousands of homes, however, may have been damaged in the past two weeks, according to Batangas Governor Hermilando Mandanas. The extent of the damage will still be assessed.

Phivolcs has cautioned that now is not yet the time to relax, since the Taal unrest is not completely over. The volcano started erupting on January 12 and the situation rapidly progressed, catching even state volcanologists by surprise. – with a report from Tina Ganzon-Ozaeta/Rappler.com

Aika Rey

Aika Rey covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler. Before writing about politicians, she covered budget, labor, and transportation issues.

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